You may not be a big fan of virtual assistants like the Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri or the Google Assistant, among others, but the fact remains that Artificial Intelligence has been increasingly encroaching on our personal space and there are no two ways about the fact that AI is here to stay.
Having made deep inroads into our day to day existence, AI is now looking spaceward as it prepares to make its microgravitational mark on the International Space Station crew members in the garb of CIMON.
Short for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN, CIMON is the collaborative brainchild of Airbus and IBM, described by the aerospace design company as a “mobile and autonomous assistance system designed to aid astronauts with their everyday tasks on the ISS.”
The friendly-looking 5-kilogram CIMON, with a plastic and metal spherical body the size of a medicine ball and powered by IBM’s Watson AI technology, will be put through its paces by European Space Agency astronaut Dr. Alexander Gerst aboard the ISS during the agency’s Horizons mission later this year.
The independently-thinking CIMON – created using additive manufacturing technology, better known as 3D Printing – will serve the ISS crew members as a floating companion with the help of a screen that will present CIMON’s smiling demeanor, when it is not busy displaying data readouts for the astronauts or assisting them with other routine tasks.
And, with a voice shaped by IBM’s Watson, it will even respond to the spoken commands of its human colleagues aboard the space station.
“In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said the Head of Microgravity Payloads from Airbus, Manfred Jaumann.
“We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station,” he added.
Commissioned by the DLR Space Administration in 2016, CIMON is the result of the collective effort put in by a team of fifty technicians from Airbus, DLR, IBM and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, who have been working ceaselessly on the project ever since.
The learning process of CIMON involved feeding it with data pertaining to the “procedures and plans” of the International Space Station, in order for the robot to orient itself with the layout of the space station and be able to float around freely.
CIMON is also being trained for face and voice recognition for smooth interactions with its human colleagues. It has been fed extensively with pictures and voice samples of Gerst, who will effectively be the first human companion of the robot when they work together in the microgravity environment of the ISS, which could last for months.
Man and machine will work together on experiments involving crystals, solve the Rubik’s cube – yes, you’ve heard that right – and perform an intricate medical test, with CIMON serving as an ‘intelligent’ flying camera.
This is how Matthias Biniok, IBM Lead Watson Architect for Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, describes CIMON’s learning regimen.
“CIMON is currently being trained to identify its environment and its human interaction partners. AI gives the space assistant text, speech and image processing capabilities, as well as the ability to retrieve specific information and findings. These skills, which can be trained individually and deepened in the context of a given assignment, are developed based on the principle of understanding – reasoning – learning,” Biniok wrote.
“Watson speech and vision technologies helped train CIMON to recognize Alexander Gerst, using voice samples and Gerst, as well as “non-Gerst” images. It also used the Watson Visual Recognition service to learn the construction plans of the Columbus module on the International Space Station to be able to easily move around.
CIMON also learned all the procedures to help carrying out the onboard experiments. Experiments sometimes consist of more than 100 different steps, CIMON knows them all,” added the Watson architect.
Explaining the CIMON project, the Airbus press release said:
“In its first Space mission, CIMON will only be equipped with a selected range of capabilities. In the medium term, aerospace researchers also plan to use the CIMON project to examine group effects that can develop over a long period of time in small teams and that may arise during long-term missions to the Moon or Mars.
Social interaction between people and machines, between astronauts and assistance systems equipped with emotional intelligence, could play an important role in the success of long-term missions. Airbus’ developers are convinced that, here on Earth, developments of the assistance system could also find future use in hospitals and social care.”
Project leader Till Eisenberg described CIMON as “a personal assistant capable of voice and facial recognition,” saying that, the purpose of the project is to “study the psychological effects of long space missions on crew members and try out suitable countermeasures, especially those that reduce stress.”